Posts tagged ‘toastmaster’


Is anyone familiar with the LHC? The Large Hadron Collider is one of the most monumental undertakings of mankind. Vast both in physical size and in ambition, it’s purpose is accelerate sub-atomic particles faster and faster, to ludicrous speeds, around and around, until BANG! … quarks and muons and bits of atoms all over the kitchen floor. Or… hopefully some sensitive detectors where astute scientists can better understand the way our world actually works.

Fellow toastmasters, honored guests. I have made something of a discovery of my own. Perhaps I can pass it on to you in less time than it took me to understand it myself.

Everyone comes to toastmasters for their own reasons. I came looking for a user group for presentations, and I learned ways to improve my speaking and communication skills. However, the way in which we approach something can also act as a bias. Coming at toastmasters as a group for presentations, I saw only what I wanted to see.

Fast forward four-odd years, to a few weeks ago. I was driving home from the Toastmaster Leadership Institute, or TLI. The excitement of the morning was over, the brain is starting to relax a bit and try to make sense of the day’s events. In particular I was thinking of two women I had seen at TLI.

D.M. ran the TLI event, and with with great bravery and did so without pretense about the fact that the people running these events are often “learning on the job”. TLI itself is a major undertaking – a large number of people need to be brought together, checked-in, session leaders need to be ready, schedules created and kept, and refreshments provided. Even though toastmasters elects officers once a year, it for some reason goes to all this trouble to schedule officer training twice a year. One thought, spinning around in my head.

The other person I saw is the sister of our own P.R., herself an enthusiastic toastmaster. One of the things J. said is that when she first sits down with a mentee, she asks “What are your goals?”; “Why are you coming to toastmasters?” Based on this, she decides whether to start with the communication manual or the leadership manual. What? The leadership manual? that thing we sometimes check off and throw back in our papers? I thought everybody started with the icebreaker. There is another thought, spinning around in my head.

I’ve got all these thought spinning around in my head, and then…. BANG!

Learning. By. Doing.

Toastmasters is not only a speech club with an unusually large bureaucracy. Toastmasters is also an environment where people can practice running an organization at all levels. The apparent activities of that organization happen to be speaking and evaluation, both useful skills for leaders. Toastmasters not only runs speech contests for competition and spectacle. Toastmasters also provides people the opportunity to practice planning and running events, from a few people to hundreds of people.

And yet, that weak evidence of memory attests that, if in my four-odd years in toastmasters, anyone has attempted to communicate this idea to me, then it has fallen on deaf ears. I came to toastmasters seeking a user group for presentations. To a large extent, I heard only what I wanted to hear. That is on me. Still, I think that at least in this club, if the leadership manual were to give a speech, the evaluator might suggest “you need to speak more loudly”. Some of us are a little hard of hearing.

At a practical level, if you are here to improve your public speaking – that is fantastic. Keep at it. The apparent activity of speaking and evaluation is the axis about which the implicit activity of the leadership program turns. Without speakers, there is nothing for the organizers to organize.

If I have been at all successful in communicating this idea to you, then you can now go out into the world and share with others. If you encounter people who want to improve their confidence or gain practical experience in leading an organization, then toastmasters is waiting for them. If your primary interest is in public speaking, those people will have an interest in taking club officer roles, freeing you to focus on your speaking without the distractions of officer duties.

LHC might mean “Large Hadron Collider”; or perhaps it means “Leaders Honing Communication”. Certainly if you get people working on communication, going faster and faster, and people working on leadership going faster and faster…..

Imagine what could happen.

Attend Every Meeting

(This is being written some time after the event, and was a last minute speech to begin with)

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests. We come to toastmasters to learn the art of public speaking. While actually getting up and speaking is important, listening to others to others speak is also a powerful tool to pick up techniques and ideas you can use yourself. Of course, you have to be present to hear the speeches. If you find yourself needing that extra bit of motivation to attend every meeting, perhaps you should consider the officer role Sergeant at Arms.

Officially, the Sergeant at Arms reserves and manages the meeting location, keeps the club equipment, and has primary responsibility for setting up the room before each meeting and for cleaning up afterwards. In this club the relationship with the city hall is nearly on autopilot; they requested a single contact rather than a new officer every year, so it mainly comes down to ensuring the reservations are extended for the next year.

Setting up the room is not hard, and will quickly become routine. Often other toastmasters, arriving early, will help move and position equipment, so you don’t even have to do most of the work. If you are unable to attend some evenings, just let us know. There are several former Sergeant at Arms, including myself and several others present, who could be available to help out. You simply have primary responsibility for ensuring the room is set up – you don’t always have to do it yourself.

The Sergeant at Arms is responsible for the club equipment. Fortunately the club has use of closet space in the city hall, so it only needs to be moved short distances. The necessary equipment is already well understood and provided for, you merely need to keep an eye on supplies like ribbons and new member folders, and provide notice when they need to be restocked. If you have a talent for organizing things, the club supplies, while sufficient, could no doubt benefit from some additional sorting and straightening.

Finally, the Sergeant at Arms is one of the club officers. If you have an interest in getting a gentle introduction to the management of the club, this is a great way to start. The Sergeant at Arms is one of easiest roles to get into – it’s duties primarily occur during meetings you already attend. At the same time, you will be part of club officer meetings, gaining experience in how the club operates, and some perspective on the duties of the other officers.

If you like organizing things, want to get a gentle introduction to the club officers, or just need that extra nudge to hear more speeches, the Sergeant at Arms may be for you.

How I Perform Evaluations in Toastmasters

This was speech #3, Get to the Point, for Fox Valley Toastmasters on 2013-06-27.

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, today I’d like to describe to you how I perform evaluations here in our toastmaster’s club. I view evaluations has having two main parts. The first part is where I listen to the speech and observe how it’s presented. The second part where is I think and organize to prepare a speech of my own. For me, these two parts take the form of two sheets of notes.

The first part covers listening and observing, so I divide my notes into two parts along those lines. The first aspect is listening to the content or text of the speech itself. This is where I’ll take not of major elements I want to comment on, interesting turns of phrase, and the overall structure in case I want to comment on the use of introduction, body, conclusion, and so on.

The second aspect, or half of my notes, is observing how the speaker presents the speech. This is everything outside of the content itself, which you know from your Competent Communicator manuals:

  • Did the speaker use notes? Where they distracting?
  • Did the speaker use gestures? Did they add to the speech?
  • Did the speaker use vocal variety? Did it add to the speech?

Through trial and error, I’ve learned that it’s important to maintain balance in note taking. One trap I got into early was taking too many notes – I was looking at my paper, writing instead of paying attention to the speaker. Another trap I’ve fallen into was spending too much time on the content side, reproducing the outline of the speech. However, I’ve found that I tend to spend far more time in evaluation on the presentation than on the content, and the way I was taking notes wasn’t supporting the way I performed evaluations.

Once the speech is over and you’ve got your notes, it’s time for the second sheet of paper. This is where you think and plan out how you are going to deliver in your own evaluation. For me this takes the form of a kind of timeline. An evaluation is two to three minutes, so I make room for all three just in case, and divide the paper into three parts. Through experience I’ve found that make approximately four points per minute, so I divide up each minute in to four sections, giving me a kind of skeleton to hang the meat of my evaluation on.

That gives me 8-12 points. That may be daunting, but remember that a bit of it is ritual. Most evaluations start with “Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, and especially our wonderful speaker…”. I usually continue with the title of the speech, the purpose if I know it. This can make a nice lead in to commenting on how well the speech fulfilled it’s purpose. And of course, the speech needs a conclusion, where I thank the speaker, perhaps reinforce a strong point, and turn the stage back over to the general evaluator. In total that’s three points – you’ve at least a quarter done, and you haven’t really had to say anything yet.

For the body, I aim for around four strong points, and three areas that might do with a little improvement. The wonderful thing about these number is how well they interleave, a technique often called sandwiching, so that I don’t dwell on either side two long. It also allows me to both start and end on a high point.

I view evaluations as two parts, which for me are two sheets of paper. In the first part, I listen to the speech and observe the speaker. In the second part, I think and plan out a timeline for my own evaluation.

Toastmaster Icebreaker Feedback

Not much feedback during the meeting – a few compliments, but of course that makes it harder to find things to improve. Ah-counter (checking for ‘ah’, ‘um’ and so on) did a very fuzzy report, and I didn’t hear my name. Timekeeper also didn’t report times, and I wasn’t sure if the grammarian was complementing or criticizing. Most of it was a few gems in the individual feedback slips that get handed around after the meeting.

  • The closing was too abrupt. Most of my practice runs were cutting the time close – by the time the meeting was approaching, I was seeing the time go down, and as usual it went faster while I was ‘on stage’ I did say that it was going on the shortest yet (even though time feedback is extremely coarse grained) and should have added one of the extra lines on the book from the ‘cutting room floor’
  • Watching breathing – more specifically, make breaths less obvious. This will take some serious paying attention to even spot.
  • Watch pacing. I think I was using a breath as a pause, and considering that part of the flow. I’m going to have to figure out how to have a pause without just standing there.
  • Some words get clumped together. Back to talking too fast. This was one comment I also during the actual meeting. It’s kind of a known problem – I think faster than I type or talk, so it’s always a challenge to keep myself operating at the speed of the output device.

Of course given the volume of the feedback there were a few outliers as well

  • Needs more organization. Examples please? I had an opening where I stated the five things I was going to talk about, talked about them using the state, restate, example, state suggested by the manual, and then briefly reviewed the topics again. Far more people said I had great organization, so I’m going to have to treat this as an outlier until I get more concrete advice.
  • Missed the intended topic. Really? This wasn’t exactly a book review. I talked about what I am, not just what I do. I suppose you wanted to hear where I work, where I went to school, and what I named my pet fish in the fifth grade?

My Strengths

This was my “icebreaker” speech at Fox Valley Toastmasters. Since I don’t have the same time constraints, I’ve put back in a few asides that got cut out of early drafts.

Hello, I am Justin Love. This talk will be about me, and about a book called Now, Discover Your Strengths. The premise of the book is that for maximum success and happiness, we should focus on our strengths rather than trying to remediate our weaknesses. It includes a code for an online survey, that will attempt give you your five biggest strengths that one should focus on. For me, those five strengths were Input, Restorative, Intellection, Ideation, and Analytical.

Input is learning. I am always learning – I don’t read as many books as I might like to, but I have audiobooks, podcasts, internet news feeds, and I am constantly learning new programming languages and technologies. So, it might not be too surprising that when I started to think “You know, I really ought to get out of the house and get a little exercise”, I signed up for a martial arts class. Martial arts is something I’ve always been curious about, and it gives me the opportunity to be constantly learning new forms and techniques. Input is always learning.

Restorative is fixing and improving things. When I see something that was working and now isn’t, I get a little bothered. When I see something and think “I know how to make it better”, there is a note of dissonance in the world. Which might explain how I ended up on my condominium board. You see, the board is supposed to have five members. If it has less than five members, it could be considered a little bit broken. I’ve found, and I believe, that there often is no point in whining about something, when you can just do it yourself. Never mind that I wasn’t even in the state when I was first put on the board, but that is a story in and of itself. Restorative is fixing and improving things.

Intellection is thinking about things. Sitting and noodeling on them – what are the implications? the contingencies? Where doe it lead, and what does it all mean? So, it might not be too surprising that one of my favorite childhood toys were Lego bricks, which can be constantly combined and recombined, trying out theories of form or function, and just taking it apart if things didn’t work out. Unfortunately, sitting and thinking does tend towards sitting alone, so I have to force myself to get out now and then with things like Toastmasters, martial arts, conferences and user groups. Intellection is thinking about things.

Ideation means thinking about big ideas – or small clear concepts that take a bunch of messy stuff and distill it down to something you can easily grasp. It is looking for the best explanation for the most events. This might explain my attraction to things like Now, Discover Your Strengths, which distills a bunch of messy human aptitude down to a couple dozen strengths. Ideation is big ideas and powerful concepts.

Analytical literally means dividing into parts. Looking for the joints of nature where one take two things and set them apart, mostly disregarding their interactions. This is something I use a lot in software. You are probably familiar with software – either it’s not doing something you want, or it is doing something you don’t want, and I’m the kind of person who gets called in to make it behave. Often times I find that I am actually more comfortable dealing with software and computers because you can analyze it – form a theory about what should happen, see what did happen and use that to narrow the cause down and down and down, until you get to a bit – true or false, yes or no – facts and data. People and politics are not always so accommodating. Analytical is dividing things down to facts and data.

Everybody has their particular strengths. The things that they do well and enjoy doing. For me some of those things are constantly learning so that I can fix and improve things, really thinking about big ideas and powerful concepts in order to break things down to real facts and data.